Creating a sustainable youth ministry

Many youth groups go through a boom-and-bust cycle: you have a few good years of youth ministry, and then things seem to fall apart and the kids all stop participating in any youth ministries. After a few years with a struggling youth ministry, things seem to miraculously get better, and you have a few more good years of youth ministry. That’s what we’re going through right now, here in our church. We’ve had a strong high school youth ministry for a while, but this year the program has gotten small. Meanwhile, our middle school youth ministries have been slowly growing for the past three years. Boom and bust.

So how do you create a sustainable youth ministry? According to the book Sustainable Youth Ministries by Mark DeVries, most congregations try the wrong approach to building up their youth ministry. They may look for that superstar youth director (or other paid staffer, e.g., DRE, MRE, etc.), or the young charismatic youth advisors. Or maybe they try to build or renovate dedicated space for youth ministries (a youth room, a basketball court, etc.). DeVreis says all these approaches are bound to be unsuccessful.

Instead, DeVries advocates taking a systemic approach to building a sustainable youth ministry. This is not as exciting or sexy or razzle-dazzle as hiring a superstar staff person, or building a new building. But it’s more likely to work in the long run, providing year after year of stable, sustainable youth ministry. There are no magical solutions; instead, you have to work steadily at building up board-based systems which will support your youth ministry.

I’ve been studying DeVries’s approach, and what he says makes sense to me. And I’ve slowly been working on applying his approach to our youth ministry here in Palo Alto. Here’s what I’ve been working on most recently, as I try to apply his concepts….

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First: DeVries says you should expect to take at least five years to build the structures necessary for a sustainable youth ministry, as opposed to a boom-and-bust youth ministry.

This is a hard one for me. I want to solve the problem more quickly than that! But I’m committing myself to a five-year, slow, steady process.

Second: DeVries says you must have the following control documents:

1. A youth ministry directory which includes the following:

  • a. A listing of all youth with name, school, grade, parent/guardian names, and contact information (phone, email, etc.)
  • b. A listing of all staff, volunteer and paid, who work in youth ministries with name, role, and contact information
  • c. A listing of all visitors who have come to youth programming in the past 2 years, with names and contact information

And it’s not good enough to have this information buried somewhere in the church database.

2. An annual events calendar, showing all major events, so parents and staff can plan well in advance.

3. Job descriptions for all paid staff and volunteer staff. At our church here in Palo Alto, this would include job descriptions for the high school youth group advisors and for the teachers in the middle school class, as well as for volunteers in our special programs (coming of age teachers and mentors, comprehensive sexuality education teachers and coordinator, etc.).

4. A master recruiting list, with names and contact information for all adults we might ask to volunteer with our youth ministries. Part of this recruiting list is a target goal of how many volunteers we will need in the coming year.

5. A curriculum or program template. This is not a list of currently available curriculum resources that we plan to use. Rather, this is a 6-7 year game plan of how the youth ministry will be structured. Only after the template is determined would you purchase curriculum and program resources that will fit the template. Generating this curriculum or program template has to be a complex process that involves buy-in from key constituencies.

I’m working on these documents. We already have an annual events calendar, job descriptions, and a master recruiting list, though they all need some revision. Creating the directory is proving to be time-consuming: our church database is difficult to work with, and it’s missing key information.

The hardest of these documents to produce will be the curriculum or program template. But I’m motivated: reflecting on the program template here in the Palo Alto church has helped me understand why we tend to lose most of our youth at about grade 9. We have a robust program template up through grade 9:– Middle school youth learn about other religions, learn about UUism, learn leadership skills, and bond together as a youth community. Youth in grades 7-9 have access to comprehensive sexuality education in our OWL program, and in our Coming of Age program they learn how to plan a worship service, learn public speaking skills, learn to write a statement of their religious identity (a “credo”), learn leadership skills, and bond together as a youth community. But we have a relatively weak program for high school aged youth, and we offer little more than learning leadership skills, bonding together as a youth community, along with a couple of opportunities for social action.

Third: DeVries says you must have the following visioning documents:

1. A mission statement for the youth program. Sample mission statements are available here: http://ymarchitects.com/wp-content/themes/yma/pdf/MissionStatementSAMPLES.pdf

2. Measurable three year goals. DeVries insists on measurable goals — you have to be able to measure how your youth ministries are doing.

3. A statement of values. Sample values are available here: http://ymarchitects.com/wp-content/themes/yma/pdf/ValuesSAMPLES.pdf

4. An organizational chart. Without an org. chart, people aren’t quite sure who is in charge of what.

We have no mission statement for our youth ministries (though we have an equivalent statement for our children’s program), no measurable three-year goals, no statement of values, and no org. chart. All of these documents are going to require months to produce, since we will need buy-in from key constituencies.

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So — that’s as far as I’ve gotten. Yes, I am a little overwhelmed at how much there is to do. But as I look at it, this is the way I’ve run many other major programs in a congregation: you put systems in place, which always takes longer than you think, but putting those systems in place stabilizes the program and ultimately reduces the amount of work. As I move forward with this, I’ll let you know how it goes.

4 thoughts on “Creating a sustainable youth ministry”

  1. It was wonderful to read that you’re doing this in Palo Alto. I was lucky to pick up 2 books from the shelf in the office I inherited. First was “Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry” and the second was “Creating a Sustainable Youth Ministry”. With help from our ministers and DRE and key stakeholders, we got to work on our control documents and emerged with mission and vision statements a year later. Everything we do is through the lens of those documents. And when we starting building our program, we worked the process that he lays out, over and over again. Now, 4 years later, we’ve experienced exponential growth and a sustainable program that will continue to run no matter who is in the position I currently hold. It’s been hard work. And it’s been so fulfilling. Keep at it. As someone who’s been there and is still there, it’s worth it!

  2. Dana — I like both those books, I’ve been referring to them constantly, and I’m really glad to hear that they have led to real growth for you folks.

  3. Dana,

    Where are you if I may ask and can you email me…I’d love to talk to someone who has been successful at applying the steps. Devries books is truly the best I have ever read….

  4. Hi Ish, you can find my contact info here. I’m slowly trying to implement some of DeVries’s ideas. I have begun developing control documents; we already have some of the mission documents, and I’m working on more; I’m working on getting additional adults to support those doing direct youth ministry.

    The tough part is getting buy-in — there’s enthusiasm in our congregation, but changing congregational behavior always takes lots of time.

    By the way, my name in Dan, not Dana.

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